The Rut of Oppression
Note: there are some mild spoilers for the movie The Dark Knight.
The Israelites through their Exodus would often lament as in Exodus 14 about maybe it being better in Egypt. Here’s one of many examples:
2 The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. 3 The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death. (Exodus 16:2-15 CEB)
This might seem like they’re being pretty foolish and ungrateful, but it isn’t a particularly uncommon scenario: sometimes we just get comfortable with oppression. We get comfortable when we’re the ones oppressing, of course, but we also sometimes just get used to ways that we are oppressed.
The reality is that it is hard to break oppressive systems. It is often harder in the short term than just staying oppressed. William Wilberforce became sick and died young from the stress of battling the slave trade in the British Empire for pretty much his entire adult life. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for his efforts in achieving civil rights for all. Many who have fought for women’s rights have been mocked and threatened, even up to today. And of course the biggest example of all, Jesus got himself killed in an excruciatingly painful way for standing up to injustices in the world at the time.
Even on a much smaller scale, if you really want to help those in need – possibly including yourself – you will need to sacrifice. We are taught culturally to always expect a bit more and that it is good to always try to own more. More money. More things. More power and influence over others. But Jesus calls us to the opposite. It is only when we give up our lives that we really find it (Matthew 10:39). We should be seeking downward mobility rather than upward, lowering our own expectations – not below livable levels, of course, but less comfortable than we expect – so we are able to give of our excess to those who need it more.
A favourite movie quote of mine from The Dark Knight sums this up well:
The night is always darkest before the dawn
Actually, that movie is a pretty good parallel to the story of the Israelites. The people don’t want the crime lords in their area. They don’t like the Joker and what he is doing to their city. They like how much Batman has helped them. But the Joker knows this fundamental reality and plays the citizens of Gotham off against Batman by saying that he would stop killing people if Batman gave up his identity and his mission. The people could side with Batman against the undeniable evil, but instead many believe that the price of freeing themselves of the Joker is too much so they would rather return to their prior problems. They know it is far short of the ideal, but actually truly breaking free of their oppression is just too hard, so they would rather go back than fight for the better world for themselves and for others.
This is a vital lesson for how we engage in social justice as well as how we develop our own spiritual lives. If it’s easy, you probably aren’t going far enough. Backlash is inevitable. You’re left with a choice: not try to change anything after all, content that the current situation is good enough, or to actually enter and then fight through the darkest part of the night with God at your side to claim the dawn.